Synthetic Aesthetics Book
Seeking aesthetic experience in the practice of science
What is aesthetics in chemical biology? Can we get away from the idea of "beautiful science," and find a more functional aesthetic in the scientific process? I guest edited the December special issue of Current Opinion in Chemical Biology on this theme; the journal includes contributions from residents Christina Agapakis, Sissel Tolaas and Sheref Mansy.
"Working in science, I know that apparently objective, rational scientists readily ...describe beautiful theories or attractive visualisations of their subjects of study, or discuss neatly symmetrical molecules that are ‘aesthetically pleasing’. Despite scientists happily applying such subjective descriptions to the products of their rational enquiries, the rupture that C.P. Snow identified in his ‘Two Cultures’ lecture in 1959 is still lamented by those either side of the divide, nostalgic for earlier times when science and humanities – and hence aesthetics – were more closely aligned. Society accepts this long established cultural division as intractable, even irresolvable, blaming it on factors such as the education system. Instead, we praise the objectivity of contemporary science, and its steady embrace of thought and analysis in contrast to experience and emotion, attitudes better suited to the artist. But such sweeping generalisation of the contrasting traits of science and the arts denies the definition of aesthetics as a cognitive mode of experience, and hence the reality that an intrinsic aesthetic experience exists in the everyday practice of science. And in disregarding this, one could argue that it perpetuates the very idea of ‘Two Cultures’: solidifying the concept of a repeatable, objective world of science where subjective, personal aesthetic experience has no place."
"Aesthetics is not just about the way things look, but about our experience of them too. Alfred Tauber, philosopher and biochemist by training, describes three levels of aesthetic experience in both art and science: sensual, emotional/imaginative and analytical [4 ]. Good science is recognised as being both experiential and philosophical: in that, I would argue that it is certainly an aesthetic pursuit. Aesthetics need not just be the special world of the visual arts, but our experience of the everyday. An emerging field of aesthetic theory, called everyday or functional aesthetics looks at just this [5,6 ]. By broadening our understanding of aesthetics in science beyond the focus on beauty, we may find useful and thought provoking new experimental paths within science. The reviewers in this issue aim to do this: each examines aesthetic experience through the different senses in the practice of science. Collectively, this approach may help not only expand our understanding of aesthetics within science, but could also benefit its practice, suggesting new techniques and areas of study."
The issue contains reviews on non-visual aspects of science, from smell, to design, to touch, to synaesthetic experience in the practice of science.
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg Editorial overview: Sensation: in search of aesthetic experience in chemical biology
Kenneth S Suslick Synesthesia in science and technology: more than making the unseen visible
Emily Candela Assembling an aesthetic
Christina M Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas Smelling in multiple dimensions
Glenn Parsons The aesthetics of chemical biology
Steven A Benner Aesthetics in synthesis and synthetic biology
Michele Forlin, Roberta Lentini and Sheref S Mansy Cellular imitations
Conversations about Synthetic Biology
Intel: The Tomorrow Project. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Christina Agapakis and Patrick Boyle in conversation with Brian David Johnson over (4 episodes), June 2012
Women In Science
Christina Agapakis has won a prestigious 2012 L’Oréal USA Fellowship for Women in Science. Christina plans to continue her work investigating symbioisis in synthetic lifeforms with this post-doctoral award.
Synthetic Aesthetics... an update
We haven't posted anything on the site for a while. We're working on an exciting publication for the project (more soon on that), which has been keeping us all busy. Our research continues into what it means to design nature and our residents are independently continuing their collaborations in their own ways, which we are thrilled about. We're excited that the extremely experimental work that we all undertook through Synthetic Aesthetics is beginning to receive recognition in our own disciplines (hence the belated rash of posts, some of them directly celebrating the projects on Synthetic Aesthetics, others recogising our resident's more day-to-day endeavours, but which we like to think might be connected!). And this week, I received the London Design Medal 2012 for Emerging Talent. The work that we have all been doing together as Synthetic Aesthetics, a diverse group from many disciplines, in labs and studios all around the world, is without a doubt key to this. It is a collaborative effort!
Living Amongst Living Things receives a Notable mention from Core77
Will Carey and Adam Reineck were recognised for their collaboration with Wendell Lim and Reid Williams at UCSF in the Core77 2012 Design Awards, receiving a notable mention in the speculative category. Jury members described the work as follows:
This is a most interesting collaboration between designers and scientists to create biodesigned projects. – Bernardo Fernandez
This concept is very provocative, as always happens with science. You have to think where to stop before making life-changing discoveries. This concept opens up a new field of study that is really amazing. I really hope the authors are aware of all the risk factors. – Irina Kharseeva
This is IDEO, so this is classy and deft. It’s “design fiction” that would impress people in the boardroom. – Bruce Sterling
UdK Award for Sissel Tolaas and Christina Agapakis
Synthetic Aesthetics Residents Christina Agapakis and Sissel Tolaas won an award from UdK, the Universität der Künste, Berlin for their art and science collaboration on human body cheese. Congratulations to our residents for their continuing collaboration!
Sheref Mansy - TED Fellow
Synthetic biology can do many amazing things – provide fuel, feed us, but the general public fears genetically modified life. Typically you start with life and modify its behaviour by modifying its genetic content. So he is trying to build cells with nonliving components – constructing lifelike technologies using artificial structures that mimic life, intentionally incorporating features that are useful but don’t replicate or evolve, instead living for a finite period and die. Communication is key – artificial cells can already detect the presence of natural cells, but the goal is to get artificial cells to be able to emit a chemical signal in response, which will close the loop.
Wired Smart List 2012: 50 people who will change the world
Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO selects Wendell Lim, synthetic biologist
Wendell runs a lab at the University of California, San Francisco, focusing on synthetic biology, which in my opinion is likely to be the next technology wave after the social internet. What makes Wendell especially interesting is that, alongside his laboratory science, he is studying how design might impact his work and how his work impacts design. He has even had a team of industrial designers working with him in the lab on some experiments. He's going to be an important voice in this new science.
Living and life-like machines
Artist Sascha Pohflepp speaks about his research in synthetic biology as part of his ongoing collaboration with Sheref Mansy for Synthetic Aesthetics. Filmed at the Becoming Transnatural symposium and exhibition, (Amsterdam, March 2011), he argues that "Life-like machines have identity," as he opens up discussion about future machines subject to evolutionary pressures.
Sheref Mansy then skyped in from his lab in Trento:
A culture of cheese - Sissel Tolaas at the World Science Festival
Sissel Tolaas was a speaker at the World Science Festival in New York in June, discussing her Synthetic Aesthetics collaboration with Christina Agapakis. Sissel says, "Smell is one of those senses where context can play a huge role. A fine cheese and a dirty foot share the same molecular smells, yet one is a delicacy and other is repulsive."
For their BO_BAD_CHE project, Christina and Sissel collected bacteria from people and used it to make 'human' cheese. "We decided to focus on cheese as a metaphor for the human organism", explains Sissel. These personalised dairy products challenge the old adage of "we are what we eat", and the boundary between what we make and who we are. Their collaboration continues: most recently, at the SB5.0 conference at Stanford in June they ran a live cheese-making session, building a library of cheeses made from bacterial cultures swabbed from the global synthetic biology community.
Testing bacterial composites for synbio architecture
Video by Fernan Federici & David Benjamin, StudioX, New York (GSAPP, Columbia University) as part of their ongoing collaboration.
Growing plants engineered for their field
Read more about the ongoing work of Will Carey and Adam Reineck from IDEO and Reid Williams from the Lim Lab at UCSF in this FastCompany article here.
Training Bacteria to Grow Consumer Goods
Read the article here.
Synthetic Aesthetics at PopTech!
Design Fellow Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg gave a talk on "The Changing Nature of Things" at the Poptech! conference in October 2011, calling for a new way to think about design in a biotechnology revolution. Video here.
"Build Life to Understand It" argue Lim and Elowitz
Biologists and engineers should work together: synthetic biology reveals how organisms develop and function, argue Michael Elowitz and Wendell A. Lim in Nature 468, December 2010.
"Although traditional disciplinary boundaries are dissolving, the cultural differences between scientists and engineers remain strong. For biologists, genetic modification is a tool to understand natural systems, not an end in itself. Thus, making biological systems 'engineerable' — a goal of engineers in the field of synthetic biology — can seem pointless. Many biologists wonder why engineers fail to appreciate the intricate, beautiful and sophisticated designs that occur naturally. Engineers are often equally perplexed by biologists. Why are they so obsessed about the details of one particular system? Why don't they appreciate the value of replacing a complex and idiosyncratic system with a simpler, more modular and more predictable alternative? These misunderstandings can make for fascinating conversations, but they can also prevent mutually beneficial synergies."
Christina Agapakis and BoingBoing's Maggie Koerth-Baker
Synthetic Aesthetics' resident and Harvard synthetic biologist Christina Agapakis in conversation with Maggie Koerth-Baker, discussing synthetic biology, design, cheese and women in science and blogging. Watch the discussion here!
Fernan Federici and Jim Haseloff: ‘April is the Cruellest Month ...’ 09 April - 25 June 2011
A new exhibition, ‘April is the Cruellest Month ...’ inspired by T.S. Eliot's poem The Wasteland, brings together artists and scientists at ArtCell Gallery, Cambridge, UK. Combining cutting edge scientific cellular imaging and artistic vision, this show is an exploration and celebration of ‘dull roots’ with new potential.
From the exhibition website:
Jim Haseloff and Fernan Federici's amazing prints of fluorescent protein labelled transgenic plants, stained whole-mounts and 3D reconstructions of plant cell anatomy, offer an other-worldly beauty to contemporary microscopic cellular plant examination. Various staining techniques are used to label DNA, proteins, carbohydrates etc., and the digital controls of a confocal microscope allow for the clean separation of different fluorescent emission signals and the balancing of signal levels in different channels, leading to the production of images with intense clarity and colour.
Based in the Department of Plant Sciences at Cambridge University, the Haseloff Laboratory is pioneering synthetic biology, and has constructed a series of tools for controlling gene misexpression, and marking specific cells in growing plants. The lab is building a new generation of genetic circuits that incorporate intercellular communication, and could be used to generate self-organised behaviour at the cellular scale. These kind of circuits and cell-cell interactions play a key role in plant development and morphogenesis, and synthetic circuits will allow bold new approaches to reprogramming plant systems.
Synthetic Biology is an emerging field that employs engineering principles for constructing genetic systems. The approach is based on the use of well-characterised and reusable components, and numerical models for the design of biological circuits.
Synthesis Workshop, July 2011
Still from Urpflanze, Melanie Jackson
The Arts Catalyst, UCL and Synthetic Aesthetics in partnership with SymbioticA present a 6-day intensive exchange laboratory for artists, designers, synthetic biologists, engineers and others.
Download the Call for Participants for further details and how to apply.
Exchange Laboratory Dates: Monday 4 - Saturday 9 July 2011
The laboratory will take place at University College London.
Deadline for Proposals to participate: 10:00 am, Monday 4 April 2011
Synthetic Biology is an emerging area of research, which applies engineering principles to biology. It promises new drugs and materials for medical applications, new routes to make biofuels and chemicals and enable the building of novel genomes and cells. It could have profound implications for the way we perceive and use living things.
Synthesis will be an intensive exchange laboratory for artists, designers, synthetic biologists, engineers, and others from relevant disciplines, collaboratively exploring synthetic biology's ideas and techniques and its social and cultural implications. The exchange laboratory will be devised and led by scientists including Prof John Ward (UCL) in collaboration with artist/designers Oron Catts (SymbioticA UWA/Royal College of Art) and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg (Synthetic Aesthetics). The exchange process is intended to explore and challenge the notions of synthetic biology, the level of control and manipulation of living systems, the application of engineering logic, and the social and cultural dimensions of synthetic biology; with the hope to inspire proposals for future projects from all participants.
Evening seminars and events during the week will broaden the exchange with the public.
Synthesis is organised by The Arts Catalyst with UCL and Synthetic Aesthetics. It is funded by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, with support from The Arts Catalyst (Arts Council England funded), the SynBion network (funded by BBSRC and EPSRC), SymbioticA (The University of Western Australia) and Synthetic Aesthetics (funded by EPSRC and the National Science Foundation).
Further labs are intended in Edinburgh,UK, Stanford University, US, and Perth, Australia.
Listening to the Brain
Listening to the sonification of brain data from a patient with epilepsy.
CCRMA Listening Room at Stanford University.
Synthesis Workshop 2011
A hands-on synbio workshop in 2011
Synthesis is an intensive laboratory-based exchange between artists, synthetic biologists and engineers, collaboratively exploring synthetic biology's ideas and techniques and its social and cultural implications.
Artist Melanie Jackson will make a film from the exchange, incorporating interviews with participants and film of the practice of synthetic biology, exploring the thresholds of this new science. Forums and discussion events will broaden the exchange with the public.
The project has been initiated by The Arts Catalyst with Prof John Ward and Dr Jane Gregory from UCL, part of the BBSRC’s SynBion network, Synthetic Aesthetics' resident Oron Catts, Director of SymbioticA, University of Western Australia, and Synthetic Aesthetics.
The first exchange lab will take place in London in 2011, with further labs intended in the future.
This intiative is funded by a Wellcome Trust Arts Award, with support from UCL and Synthetic Aesthetics.
More details soon!
Synthetic Aesthetics iGEM 2010 Design Workshop: How Would You Design Nature? curated by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
Exploring Collaborations between Synthetic Biology, Art & Design at iGEM
7PM - 8PM, Saturday 6 November 2010
Room 32-155, Stata Center, iGEM Jamboree, MIT
Design is part of the process of synthetic biology. iGEM teams are generating some of the most creative and adventurous design ideas in the field. Now designers are now joining engineering teams, teams of artists/designers are entering iGEM – like ArtScience Bangalore – and engineers are joining art teams. We want to explore what works and hasn’t, how such collaborations can develop in the future, and how Synthetic Aesthetics can contribute. We want to share what we’re learning, talk about our ideas, and find out how iGEM teams are innovating.
How does your project think about design? Molecular design, speculative design, human practices as design? Present a 5 minute pitch and be part of the discussion about what it means to design with nature.
Ask a member of our team at the Jamboree to find out more and schedule a pitch slot.
Programme (5 min talks, 1 hour session total)
1. Synthetic Aesthetics Introduction
2. E.chromi 2009, James King & Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg
3. ArtScienceBangalore 2009 & 2010
4. WeimarHeidelbergArts 2010
5. Harvard 2010
6. Imperial 2010
7. Fernan Federici (Cambridge U, Plant Sciences) & David Benjamin (Columbia U, Architecture)
8. Discussion - Design in Synthetic Biology at IGEM
Synthetic Aesthetics Seminar: Form Follow Evolution, Function or Fashion?
Exploring Collaborations between Synthetic Biology, Art & Design
Orkan Telhan, MIT Department of Architecture
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Design Fellow, Synthetic Aesthetics, Stanford & Edinburgh
4pm ‐ 7pm, Friday, 5 November 2010
E14‐633 MIT Media Lab
How would you design nature?
What does it mean to design with nature?
How should we design with nature?
Synthetic Biology is a new approach to engineering biology. By applying engineering principles to the
complexity of living systems, scientists and engineers are making biology a new material for design.
Synthetic Aesthetics is an ongoing interdisciplinary research project exploring what this kind of design
means, looks like, and intimates. By bringing scientists, engineers, artists and designers together in
collaborative projects, we aim to explore shared territory in process, interaction, and directions for future
work with biological design.
As iGEM 2010 (the International Genetic Engineered Machines competition) begins at MIT, this seminar
and discussion will delve into synthetic biology, its relationship to design and art, and the diverse
collaborations underway within Synthetic Aesthetics. Bioengineer and BIOFAB founder Drew Endy will
introduce synthetic biology, Synthetic Aesthetics residents from science, design and art backgrounds will
discuss their developing collaborations, social scientists and guest speakers will describe their own
engagements with the field, from science, design, art to citizen science.
The seminar will focus on what roles designers and artists can play in this nascent field of science and
engineering, how synthetic biology can impact art and design, and what these collaborations can tell us
about the role of biotechnology in social life. What can be learned by designers from scientists, and what
can design and art offer to science? What are these emerging collaborative works? What can this shared
territory reveal about science and design?
Drew Endy Bioengineer, Stanford University
Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg Artist/Designer, UK
Orkan Telhan MIT Architecture
Pablo Schyfter Philosopher Of Technology, Stanford University
Jane Calvert Sociologist Of Science, Edinburgh University
Fernan Federici Plant Scientist, Cambridge University
David Benjamin Architect, Columbia University, NYC
Sissel Tolaas Smell Artist, Germany
Christina Agapakis Biologist, Harvard Medical School
Sascha Pohflepp, Artist/designer, Germany (by skype)
Sheref Mansy Protocell scientist, University of Trento, Italy (by skype)
Will Carey Designer, IDEO Inc., Palo Alto (by Skype)
Mac Cowell DIYbio, Boston
Yashas Shetty Artist, ArtScience Bangalore, India
Peter Yeadon Designer, RISD/Decker Yeadon, NYC (by skype)
Sergio Araya Researcher, Computation, MIT Architecture
Synthetic Aesthetics Salon: Future natures in a culture of synthetic biology
Thursday October 28, 8 pm, with Sascha Pohflepp, Sheref Mansy, Lucy McRae and Koert van Mensvoort.
Science and technology are moving closer to adding living organisms to our cultural toolkit. Microbes are already making insulin and soon they may produce the world's fuel supply. Their potential is limited only by our imagination.
The emerging field of synthetic biology aims to transform biology as we know it into a discipline of engineering. The top-down BioBricks approach prefers to hack existing organisms. The more research-oriented field of so-called protocells aims to create minimal living machines and may on the way discover the nature of life itself. What both technosciences share is that, if successful, they will profoundly shift or even erase our distinction between nature and culture. After the first truly artificial life form has been created and employed, everything can potentially become technology.
If their main subject is increasingly an object that is made, biologists are becoming creative. What will be the role of the arts in a future where life is a thing to be designed? Will scientists become the poets of the time, or do art, design and architecture need to play a role in this development? Can these possibilities be explored collaboratively?
This Salon will be exploring why our notions of nature and technology may need to change and look closer at work in both art and science. From the body as architecture to the soft systems of the future and scientific research focussing on artificial cells as life-like machines.
Sheref Mansy obtained his bachelor's and doctoral degrees from Ohio State University. After a postdoctoral position in the laboratory of Jack W. Szostak at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Sheref was awarded a career development award from the Giovanni Armenise-Harvard foundation. He joined the University of Trento as an Assistant Professor of biochemistry in 2009. His research interests are in the development of in vitro reconstructions of life-like systems...
Lucy McRae is an Australian artist straddling the worlds of fashion, technology and the body. As a body Architect she invents and builds structures on the skin that re-shape the human silhouette. Trained as a classical ballerina and architect her work inherently fascinates with the human body.
Her provocative and often grotesquely beautiful imagery suggests a new breed; a future human archetype existing in an alternate world
Koert van Mensvoort
Despite the global awareness of our fragile relation with nature and the countless projects initiated to restore the balance, almost no one has asked the question: What is our concept of nature? And how is our relation with nature changing? Koert van Meensvoort is an artist, scientist, designer, inventor, philosopher, doctor and runs the blog www.nextnature.net
Sascha Pohflepp is an artist, designer and writer. He is interested in past and future technologies, notions of art, business and idealism, what they mean to us and how they inform which worlds come true and which worlds are discarded. He holds a degree in Media Art from the Universität der Künste Berlin and an MA from Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art in London. .
At the Mansy Lab, Amy Spencer is developing protocolls with micro-fluidics to manufacture vesicles, using oils and water. Fluorescent dye is added to help with visualisation under the microscope.
Time and Place
Cyanobacteria expert, Hideo Iwasaki of Waseda University, Tokyo, and biological artist Oron Catts in Hideo's lab, discussing cyanobacteria and circadian rhythm.
In the Haseloff Lab
Travelling between Scale and Metaphor
Plant scientist Fernan Federici and architect David Benjamin began their exchange last week at the Haseloff Laboratory at Cambridge University. During their weeks embedded in Cambridge University-based synthetic biology laboratory, Fernan and David are discussing and comparing shared ideas of scale, metaphor, material and space, drawing on their seemingly separate expertise in synthetic biology and architecture.
Conference details here.
The panel features a new generation of leaders in biotechnology from industry, academia, art and design discussing the future of biology. With Christina Agapakis, Patrick Boyle, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Jason Kelly,Sri Kosuri. More info
Talk by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg at the Futurising Forum, MA Textile Futures and MA Industrial Design.
Oron Catts reviews how architects are trying to break through biomimetics, hoping to employ biological systems and processes for architectural ends. Link
Pablo Schyfter and Jane Calvert, Society for the Social Studies of Science, Cleveland, Ohio
Daisy Ginsberg on the debate panel at the Battle of Ideas, London, UK.
An interdisciplinary symposium to cross-fertilize ideas about the body, place and memory across performance studies and biological sciences.
Talk by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg at Pop!Tech conference 2011, Camden, Maine. Video
Talk by Jane Calvert at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark
Presentation by Christina Agapakis at Synthetic Biology at the Interface of Science and Policy, University of Ottawa
Talk by Jane Calvert, 70th Harden Conference, University of Keele
Design Fellow Daisy Ginsberg speaking about Synthetic Aesthetics and Design Evolution at TEDglobal in Edinburgh, July 2011.
The Arts Catalyst, UCL and Synthetic Aesthetics in partnership with SymbioticA present a 6-day intensive exchange laboratory for artists, designers, synthetic biologists, engineers and others.
Christina and Daisy speaking at the 'slam' at SB5.0 at Stanford University.
Sissel Tolaas and Christina Agapakis make cheese at the Fifth International Meeting on Synthetic Biology at Stanford University.
Lecture by Christina Agapakis at Bio:Fiction Film Festival, Vienna
Synthetic Aesthetics will be presenting at the Bio:Fiction Festival in Vienna. More info...
Talk by Jane Calvert at Models, Mechanisms and Algorithms: Symposium on Philosophical Perspectives on Synthetic Biology, University of Helsinki
Talk by Jane Calvert at the British Sociological Association, London School of Economics
Sheref Mansy and Sascha Pohflepp on their work at the Becoming Transnatural Symposium.
Exploring Collaborations between Synthetic Biology, Art & Design at IGEM
Design is part of the process of synthetic biology. iGEM teams are generating some of the most creative, energetic, and adventurous design ideas in the field. Now designers are now joining engineering teams, teams of artists/designers are entering iGEM – like ArtScience Bangalore – and engineers are joining art teams. We want to explore what works and hasn’t, how such collaborations can...
The International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition at MIT. 150 teams of undergraduate students compete to design novel BioBrick parts and new bacterial devices.
15 speakers explore collaborations between synthetic biology, art & design. 4pm-7pm MIT MediaLab
Link Additional speakers: Lucy McRae and Koert von Mensvoort and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.
Residents David Benjamin and Fernan Federici will run a second event on synthetic biology and design during their residency at Columbia University. Link
Organized by David Benjamin and the Architecture Bio-Synthesis Project at Columbia. This series of events brings together biologists, artists, sociologists, philosophers, and architects to share currentwork and discuss future possibilities for design, architecture, innovation, and danger in the century of biology. In this session, representatives from Synthetic Aesthetics and DIYbio NYC will explore collaboration, work processes, and the potential for new biological technologies to...
Oron Catts and Pablo Schyfter at the 35th 4S Annual Meeting at the University of Tokyo.